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Regular version of the site

'Get a Ticket': Anna Belokrylova on Her Exchange Studies in Mexico

In winter, we only talk about warm lands—and with HSE University-St Petersburg students as well. We talked to Anna Belokrylova, 3rd-year student of the Bachelor's programme 'Sociology and Social Informatics': she spent the autumn semester in Mexico. Find out how the studies at the University of Monterrey, what subjects turned out to be the most useful for her career, what the university environment offers international students and why each tourist has to see the Day of the Dead in the interview.

'Get a Ticket': Anna Belokrylova on Her Exchange Studies in Mexico

Photo courtesy of Anna Belokrylova

How you chose the university

I didn't apply for academic mobility straight away: I thought that my application wouldn't be accepted. When I started looking for summer schools and other opportunities, my friend said: 'You should go to Mexico!' And she just applied for the University of Monterrey. Back then, I thought it was a good option because Mexico had an absolutely different culture, and I had a chance to see it with my own eyes. Besides, I was always taught to step out of my comfort zone and try new things—something that seems unusual. I understood that studying in a completely new environment in a foreign language would stimulate me for significant personal growth.

How the educational process changed

Of course, there were a lot of differences. The first thing was that we started to study much more. For sure, my first year at HSE University-St Petersburg was very hard. But later on, I realised what to invest in more. So we arrived... Monterrey is not a city where you can roam about endlessly. We started to pay more attention to our studies. Even lecturers sometimes told us: 'Wow, what a work, you wrote so much!' But we were simply schooled by our educational system. Even if we have only three hours before the deadline, we'll try to do our maximum.

Another difference is paid materials for courses. Of course, it was a surprise. At HSE University, we were sent any materials for free, even if they were very extensive. But here, you have to pay and you don't know how reasonable these investments are. What if the materials turn out not to be that useful? We downloaded the textbooks by parts from an electronic library for free.

Studying English is not that hard: we got used to it at HSE University. The only difficulty is that a lecturer won't switch to Russian if you don't understand something, you have to adjust. In addition, in Market Research, we conducted a survey which was fully in Spanish. But we got some help from a local student who worked in our team. 

The most familiar in terms of format was a course about North America. Just like at HSE University, we were assigned to read some materials at home and then, we discussed the text in class together. The most difficult one was the course on Financial Analysis. We started every week with it: we had two double classes on Monday morning. At first, we didn't even have time to blink! We knew that if we missed at least a second, that would be it, we could leave. We wouldn't be able to catch up. As a result, we gained a lot of knowledge in this course: for example, we learned to work with Bloomberg, a platform for financial analysts. At the end of classes, we were doing a project with a group of students from the Hungarian university. To sum up, a very cool subject! Thanks to it, I realised that I should go for this sphere. Our professor there was very energetic and responsive. She said that I could address any questions to her, even when the mobility would come to an end.

What you like about the foreign university

In fact, there are no reasons to dislike the University of Monterrey. As I have already mentioned, we had a great course in financial analysis. It was so strong that I got inspired and set sights on this field to engage in it in the future. The course 'North America Studies' was also amazing: I learnt a lot about how Mexico changed and developed.

Besides, the territory of the university is splendid. There are so many places where you can study! There is a huge library with several halls and floors where one can sit with a laptop or a book. On the first floor, next to the stairs, the library provides pillows and mattresses for those who are tired and want to take a nap. Sitting outdoors is also pleasant: you could admire a waterfall or watch hare who sometimes run across a meadow.

At the University of Monterrey, sport is also very popular. The choice is very wide: shot put, volleyball, basketball, tennis and pilates... Even salsa classes! Those who attended them prepared a final concert at the end of the year. I regularly went to the gym, and I truly enjoyed it. I also tried to join a basketball team but everything went wrong. They created a chat for the basketball team, a week passed, then another one—and nothing... I asked a girl from the team when training sessions would start. 'When they will announce the date of the competitions', she replied. What did it lead to? Then, she wrote: 'The competition is the day after tomorrow, we'll go without training'. Why would I need it? My attitude to sport is a little different: if you go to a competition, you go to smash everyone.

Infrastructure at the university in general is very developed. At a huge food court, it is easy to get a full meal: you could try local food as well as eat at 'Subway'! Every floor had water dispensers and vending machines as well as ATMs... Such little things make the studies much more comfortable!

The work with international students at the University of Monterrey is also well organised. Every international student has a buddy, a student who helps to adapt. My buddy had found me in advance via my acquaintance from HSE University. He answered the questions of where it was better to live, and how things were structured and introduced me to the Mexican culture. When we arrived, he met me and my friend at the airport, helped to settle in, and sometimes invited us for a walk or a party. In addition, the university organised an Adaptation Day for international students: told us about how the studies would go and what the minimum grade was. Then, we had an excursion around the university which gradually turned into a station game. During the studies, there was a fair where we had to present our countries, their cultures and national cuisines. As I am from the Urals, I brought chak-chak: this is the dish which I associate with home. My friend treated guests to sushki (dried biscuits). Besides, especially for the fair, we prepared blini (thin pancakes) and draniki (potato flapjacks)!

How your daily life is organised

The weather in Monterrey turned out to be very unusual. In its climate, the city sometimes resembles a desert. If you look at the map, you can see a river in the city centre. But in reality, there is no river—it has dried. It was a little difficult because of the heat at first: when we arrived, the temperature during the day reached 38 degrees. But air conditioners were a rescue: I even took a jacket to the university. In October, it became colder, the temperature fell to 16 degrees, and I felt all the disadvantages of the lack of central heating in the house. I bought thermal underwear, socks, jackets... It was very cold though in Russia, it was almost summer.

My friend from HSE University and I lived in a rented flat, not in a dormitory. Why? It was more expensive in a dormitory, and we were scared that we wouldn't coincide with other students in habits. But we were extremely lucky with the accommodation. First of all, we rented a flat for almost the same price as many people rented a room. Second of all, the flat was located across the street from the university. Can't get closer than that. It is pretty nice inside as well: our own kitchen, bathroom, washing machine... Plus, a terrace from which we admired the sunsets, sunrises and nature.

I usually cooked myself—I tried to save money but at the same time, eat properly. I often bought tuna because, in Mexico, it turned out to be less expensive than in Russia. I bought avocado because there is always a lot of it, and mango during the season. But apples are usually expensive because they are often imported.

Three things that surprised you in the new country

People's openness and kindness

In Mexico, people are saturated with the sun from the inside. While walking, you don't see any sad faces at all. Even if a person lives poorly, they usually look like they are enjoying their lives.

In general, all the locals are very open, they are always ready to help. Once, I was standing at a bus stop and waiting for a bus for 40 minutes. A local woman who didn't speak English at all noticed me and called me a taxi. Then, she gave me her number and asked me to text her if I got to the place successfully. Or there was another case: my friends and I came up to the Mexicans to ask where a bus stop was located. They not only explained the way but also took us there and waited for the bus with us. I can't imagine anything like that in our country.

Day of the Dead

In Mexico, people have an amazing attitude to death. For us, it is something black, and dark, but there, it is completely different. They remember their roots, the Day of the Dead is a bright holiday. Streets and cemeteries become rich in flowers, there are fairs and altars everywhere... 

I saw how they celebrate the Day of the Dead in two cities—Mexico City and Monterrey. In Mexico City, I almost caught the parade, the crowds of locals came out to see it. Someone came in a national costume, others—with papier mache figures, and it was awesome! In Monterrey, I accidentally went to a rich private cemetery which had been closed before. There opened a fair inside, all the altars and graves were decorated, and families gathered in circles. I cannot explain the emotions from what I saw with words. I realised that the death of a relative didn't break the family but quite the opposite knitted them together.

Lack of English

I used to think that in Monterrey, people would know English well. After all, the border with the USA is just a step away from here, and you can get to Texas by bus. But no. Even if I decide to specify the price at a shop in English, they probably won't understand me. The solution is easy: to learn the phrase 'I don't speak Spanish' and download a translator. Then, even if the Internet connection is gone, you will still be able to translate the other person's words.

Three things one has to do during a trip

Go hiking

There are a lot of mountains and parks next to Monterrey where you can go for a walk. But the coolest thing is to combine it with hiking, this is what I did. We were taken up the mountain, and we went down from there with the group. It is a little extreme: in some places, we had to go along mountain rivers, in others—jump off the cliffs into water and go down a rope to caves. But it was very cool! You admire nature and test your abilities at the same time.

Try chilaquiles

For me, it is the tastiest Mexican food. Chilaquiles are corn chips mixed with a great amount of spicy sauce. Chips sink in all this sauce, and it turns into something like cream soup. At least, at stalls, they cook the dish this way. In more modern cafes, it looks more aesthetic: chips are carefully placed, sprinkled with sauce a little bit with avocado on the side.

Go to a cemetery

If your mobility programme falls on autumn, during the Day of the Dead, you should go to a cemetery to feel the atmosphere. Even though it is a family holiday, it's impossible to feel like you are not wanted. People are so open that it is unreal. But at cemeteries, I didn't come up to families too close: I tried not to get in anyone's way. I simply walked down the paths.

What the exchange programme gave you

Thanks to the course in financial analysis, I realised what I wanted to do further: corporate finance and audit. My daily life also changed: in Mexico, I went to the gym because I couldn't do equestrian sports there like in Russia. Now, training sessions have become a part of my routine, they wind down well.

Besides, of course, I got tremendous experience in communicating with new people. I am not scared any more to come up to strangers and ask them some questions. And it is pleasant that I have acquaintances from all over the world. Wherever I go, I can always meet someone.

What you dream of now

To go on the mobility programme again! Ideally, to China: after Mexico, I definitely want to go somewhere to the sun. But it is pure luck. Perhaps, I'll consider other closer countries as well. In the end, I want to see the world, and the mobility programme allows me to do it.